The quarrel over Aspen’s Cozy Point
ASPEN – Dirt is being kicked up at Cozy Point Ranch, putting the operator on the defense against outside interests looking to take the reins from him.
Monroe Summers, owner of Cozy Point LLC, which operates the city-owned property at Brush Creek Road and Highway 82, is in negotiations for a new 10-year lease with Aspen officials. The City Council is expected to review the contract in the next few weeks during a public meeting.
But a group of equestrians who once used the facility before a falling out with Summers is attempting to block the lease by claiming he mismanages the property. The group also questions the operation’s finances, which are tied to the city of Aspen.
Red Barn LLC, which includes Judy Hill Nelson, owner of H2J Riding Camp, and several paid consultants, alleges Summers has allowed unsafe conditions at the ranch, ignored stated land stewardship practices on the dedicated open space and is hiding revenue from the city.
Earlier this spring the Red Barn group submitted a detailed proposal to take over the lease after the city went out for public bid in search of a ranch operator for the next decade.
Summers had agreed to a new lease in September 2007 but nothing was signed, which he now admits was a mistake. Last fall, shortly before the council scheduled to meet with Summers during a public hearing to formally extend the lease, his detractors went to city officials with their claims.
More than two dozen letters were submitted by users and boarders of the facility, complaining that the footing in the arena is unsafe for the horses, as well as raising other management issues at the ranch.
Melissa Wight, who wrote one of the letters, is a parent of an H2J camper, a boarder at the ranch, a partner in Red Barn LLC and an H2J representative.
“It is our contention that the facility has been run disproportionally for the benefit of Monroe Summers and not to the benefit of the city of Aspen and the community at large,” Wight wrote.
The allegations were enough for city officials to halt lease negotiations with Summers and enter into a public bidding process. A citizen task force was convened to review the proposals and make a recommendation to the council.
Summers, Red Barn LLC and one other ranch operator made their presentations in front of the task force in March. A majority of the committee’s members selected Summers’ company.
That decision has fueled the Red Barn group to put pressure on Summers and his operation. He said he had hoped to keep the drama out of the public eye.
“I never finger point unless it’s pointed at me,” Summers said. “But you don’t try to destroy somebody because you don’t get your way.”
Summers suggests that Red Barn LLC is funded by wealthy horse owners who want the facility turned into a show barn he likens to a “Maroon Creek Club” or “Aspen Mountain Club” for equestrians.
When the allegations emerged last summer, Summers responded by submitting to Mayor Mick Ireland and the council multiple documents responding to the claims.
“[Judy Hill Nelson] has hired lawyers and a publicist, and has made open records demands upon the city in an attempt to smear our good name,” Summers wrote in a Nov. 4, 2008 letter. “They have apparently spent a significant sum of money … fishing for anything they might use to muddy our reputation and discredit our business.”
Nelson bought H2J from Joyce Witte in 2005. Summers said he and Nelson’s relationship was solid until the summer of 2008 when she wanted a long-term lease at the ranch. She alleged he had reneged on promises he made to her about facility upgrades.
Summers wouldn’t agree to H2J’s demand that their lease be tied to his long-term agreement with the city, or the terms and conditions proposed by H2J. Summers said he didn’t want to give up control over the riding camp’s scheduling and activities at the ranch, which run for three months during the summer and account for 4 percent of the ranch’s annual gross revenues.
Summers said he told Nelson and other H2J representatives that he would work with them over the next nine months on a new agreement – before 2009’s summer season began.
“In our opinion, the agreement they submitted was not in the best interest of Cozy Point Ranch, our year-round boarders and clientele, or the city of Aspen,” Summers explained in his November letter. “They replied that if we didn’t submit to their bullying and sign their agreement by Sept. 19, they would go to the city and attack us at the public hearing on our lease extension.”
Nelson has relocated the H2J operation from Cozy Point to Aspen Equestrian Estates. Wight also has removed her horses from the ranch.
“They were getting hurt,” Wight said of the footing in the arena. “There should be a certain level of care.”
Wight and Nelson allege their agreements with Cozy Point included a gag clause forbidding them to speak with the city, the public or the media about the conditions at the ranch. All trainers and boarders have the clause written into their agreements.
Summers addressed that in his letter to city officials, and provided a copy of the trainer and boarder agreements in his proposal for the lease extension.
He explained that it’s uncommon for more than one discipline to be at an equestrian ranch like Cozy Point, and therefore, there are many different opinions on how it should be operated. The so-called gag clause, he said, is a stipulation in the agreements designed to settle any differences with the ranch’s management in house and “not to attempt to gain leverage against our positions and policies by going to the press or our landlord or attempting to propagate an internal revolt with gossip and slander,” Summers wrote to city officials.
“This recent disruptive attack is exactly why we ask every user of the ranch facilities, including Judy Hill Nelson, to sign our ‘acknowledgment agreement.'”
“We are going to insist that people get along or get out,” Summers said in a later interview.
Summers also said that the footing, which is the material that the horses exercise in, is a common controversy among horse people.
“Complaining about the footing is an international pastime in the equestrian world much like complaining about the weather,” he wrote to city officials.
Jeff Woods, the manager of the city’s parks and recreation department, which partially oversees Cozy Point Ranch, said letters of support for Summers and his operation outnumber opponents by at least a 2-1 margin.
When Summers took over the 170-acre ranch in 2000, it had been left in shambles by multiple short-lived operators, Woods said.
The city bought the property in 1994 for $3.2 million with the initial intention to build affordable housing there. For several years, the community argued about the future of the property, and in the meantime, the land was neglected. Physical structures had deteriorated, noxious weeds had infested the land and irrigation lines were washed out.
“It was a hell hole,” Woods said.
With no money in its budget to restore the property, the city contemplated selling the land. But then a citizen task force got involved and devised a plan to find an operator who could put the necessary infrastructure in and be repaid his or her investment through rent credits.
Summers, who owns a property management company, was selected because of his land-management skills and horse experience. The equestrian expertise comes from Cozy Point Ranch Manager Patti Watson.
“He had turned the ranch around, literally,” Woods said.
Stephen Ellsperman, director of the city’s parks department, said the vision for the ranch has remained the same since the city’s purchase. The property is to be used as a public facility for equestrian operations, and as an open space area, which includes agricultural uses.
“[Summers] had bitten off this hugely insurmountable task,” he said, adding relationships with adjacent homeowners and ranchers had to be rebuilt as a result of years of neglect. “He had to establish a new trust with the community.”
The city has assisted Summers in making capital improvements at the ranch over the past decade by infusing about $420,000. Summers also has been credited rent payments for his investments and maintenance on the property up until late last year. He now pays 5 percent of the ranch’s total annual gross receipts up to $500,000 and 7.5 percent over that amount a year in rent, per the lease signed in 2000. The lease expires in 2010 and will likely have substantial changes to it when it is presented to council, possibly as early as June 22.
According to Cozy Point LLC’s financial statements, the operation in 2008 brought in about $618,000 in income and had $608,000 in expenses. Summers said his property management company, Summers Properties West Inc., has yet to be reimbursed for a lot of the work done on the ranch, and Cozy Point LLC is a small operation struggling to make ends meet that pays no salary or dividends to its shareholders.
Summers said he hopes to see a return on his investment if he gets to run the ranch for another 10 years. His proposal calls upon the city to assist him by funding more capital improvements on the property, like it does with other publicly-owned assets.
The council agreed in 2007 to appropriate another $600,000 in capital improvements, including public restrooms. Currently, the public and users of the ranch use portable toilets. Other planned capital improvements include covered storage space for hay, bedding and equipment, office and meeting space, irrigation upgrades and other items.
No improvements have been made yet, including the top priority of public bathrooms, because the approval process in Pitkin County has stalled the plans.
The bathrooms were one of the promises that Nelson claims Summers reneged on. He said it was out of his control.
“It has been a mind-numbing building permit process and a year and a half of brain damage,” Summers said, adding plans are close to being approved for public restrooms and a new multi-use building. “We’ve been in limbo for a year.”
Red Barn’s proposal suggests it can make the city $100,000 in profit annually, totaling $1 million over the next decade in rent payments. The team also proposes to infuse its own money into cleaning up adjacent streams that it claims are polluted with toxins from ranch operations, as well as removing noxious weeds from the land, improving facilities and offering more community programs.
Wight said it was only after the falling out with Summers last year that she and her supporters decided to take a stab at managing the operation once they learned the lease was up for renewal. Wight said she and Nelson also offered to pay for new footing if H2J was given a long-term lease.
“I said then, ‘Should I walk away and say screw it?’ But you want to try and do the right thing,” Wight said of Cozy Point’s conditions. “We thought we could do better.”
The majority of the task force that reviewed the proposals apparently thinks otherwise. The nine-member committee’s decision was not unanimous but it did agree Summers should continue Cozy Point’s operations. Task force members have been asked not to speak publicly about their decisions and are reluctant to get caught in the middle of a political firestorm, city officials say.
Scott Dolginow, a veterinarian at Aspen Animal Hospital, served on the task force. While he has no formal training as an equestrian expert, he said he reached out to professionals familiar with Cozy Point and its operators.
“I heard a lot of positive of the job he is done,” Dolginow said of Summers. “Overall, the feeling was that his track record was good enough and nothing was presented to me that would make me concerned.”
The task force largely agreed with city officials and Summers that the property has room for improvement.
“It will never be as nice as I want it to be,” Summers said. “We don’t generate enough income to do a major facelift to the property … It is what it is.”
Ellsperman and Woods said the goals of Cozy Point might not necessarily lead to making a profit but if it provides a community benefit, breaking even is acceptable.
“A lot of people have ideas on what it should be,” Woods said. “Is there a lot of capital improvements to be done out there? Absolutely.”
City officials refute claims by Red Barn representatives that the decision to grant Summers the new lease already was a done deal. That is why a request for proposals was initiated in the first place, Ellsperman said.
“It was important that this wasn’t a staff decision but a community decision,” he said of the months of work needed for the bidding process and the task force’s involvement. “It was done fairly and in an unbiased manner. It was never predetermined.”
Summers said the task force’s recommendation validates what he and Watson have attempted to strive for on the ranch.
“We’ve tried to put all of our cards on the table,” Summers said. “We are one of the last people practicing a lost art.”
Wight said that art needs some refining.
“Bottom line is that we tried to do something good for the city in every way and something isn’t right.”
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